Spokane was still welcoming back local soldiers from the battlefields of Europe 100 years ago Friday as it prepared for the Fourth of July.
The Great War, as it was called, had ground to a halt the previous November with an armistice, but working out the details of a peace treaty with all of the nations involved had taken more than seven months.
The United States was trying to retire some of its war expenses through the sale of Victory bonds, with different communities competing against each other to see whose citizens could buy the most. Spokane had recently won its category for communities with populations 75,000 to 200,000 and was promised a captured German cannon as a reward.
For days, The Spokesman-Review carried stories questioning whether German envoys would sign the peace treaty at negotiations in Versailles, France, which would include the formation of the League of Nations, an organization that could settle disputes between countries before they turn into wars.
“Must there be a second war with … a half-whipped and traitorous Germany?” the newspaper’s editorial page asked on June 27, 1919.
But the next day the newspaper carried the story of the treaty signing across the front page with a large headline and a story that began “World peace was signed and sealed in the historic Hall of Mirrors at Versailles this afternoon.”
The front-page cartoon had two panels: In the top, labeled August 1914, German soldiers were marching off to war, rifles on their shoulders and singing Deutschland Uber Alles; on the bottom, labeled June 1919, old men were slouching back at night carrying fountain pens.
The editorial page was not quite so jubilant, urging readers to take President Woodrow Wilson’s “optimistic assurances” on the treaty and the League with a grain of salt.
The newspaper carried news of the treaty, Wilson’s return trip to the United States and reaction to the League of Nations. Idaho Sen. William Borah was critical of the treaty, and particularly the League, contending at one point “international bankers” were sponsoring it for selfish purposes. Washington Sen. Miles Poindexter wondered what would happen if the United States joined the League but later decided to help the Irish in their fight for independence from Great Britain like the French helped the colonists.
But most of the news and views were positive. A front-page editorial cartoon on June 30 showed a crowd of people looking at an exhibit at what was called a Museum of Un-natural History. Among the skeletons of dinosaurs and woolly mammoths was a skull in a Prussian spiked helmet under the sign “German militarism (extinct).” On July 4, even the editorial page sounded a positive note, declaring “the most glorious Independence Day since 1865 … a world made safe for democracy, old peoples in Europe freed from autocrats and armies, new peoples released to work out their destinies.”
“Today the clouds of war have rolled away and the heart of the world chants a hymn of hope for the days to be.”
At some point, the German cannon that was promised as a reward for selling war bonds was delivered to Spokane. It became the property of American Legion Post 9, which was started by returning war veterans and for many years was the largest post in the state. Eventually, the post decided it needed a prominent display and moved it a parkway space on Riverside Avenue in front of the Spokane Club, behind the Monaghan statue, barrel pointing toward downtown.
The cannon would become Spokane’s link between World War I and World War II, just as the Treaty of Versailles would tie the nations of Europe to that second conflict.
The reparations the Allies demanded of Germany to pay for the Great War bankrupted the country and led to several changes of government and the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party. The League of Nations was formed without the United States as a member and had no clout. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, France and Great Britain went to war with Germany.
By 1942, the United States was also in the war. While it drafted and trained troops and built airplanes and ships, shortages of steel prompted communities to hold scrap drives to round up steel.
In late March, Post 9 voted to donate the World War I cannon to the war effort, to be melted down as scrap. The relic from one war was recycled for the second.
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